Business

Is the G20 able to fix the eurozone mess?

Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti
Image caption Can the G20's grey suits sort out Europe's crisis?

Another weekend, another gathering of global leaders struggling to stabilise the economic system.

As the world's financial press watch and wait around the French finance ministry in the windswept Bercy district of Paris, expectations are low.

Arriving G20 finance ministers and central bank governors are unlikely to be looking forward to their working weekend.

They will hold their final news conference in the lofty surroundings of the impressive Cite of Architecture.

With hindsight, you might say that it is the heavily over-borrowed nations of Europe the have been the architects of their own financial plight, albeit aided and abetted by the rich nations that failed to realise the ultimate price they would themselves pay for letting the southern wannabees into their currency club, but not enforcing the rules.

And no matter what the world's policymakers now seem to say or do, the credit markets continue to crumble. There is still no blueprint to rebuild confidence.

'Complete strategy'

Image caption Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos knows there is no quick fix

Not for the first time, the leading nations' finance ministers will have to defend accusations that, like European leaders before them, they lack the political will to set aside national interests and act together to stop the rot.

Yet this time it is different.

This is the first of three crucial, almost concurrent, meetings of the political pawnbrokers that will determine the destiny of whole European countries and their banks, not to mention the fate of the single currency itself.

This weekend, the so-called "Bric economies" - that's Brazil, Russia, India and China - will join Japan here at the G20 to warn the European Union (EU) that indecision over its sovereign debt crisis is exporting currency volatility and a likely global recession.

The G20 message will then be relayed to the all-important (and delayed) full EU summit in Brussels on Sunday 23 October.

There, the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, has staked his political reputation on the unveiling of a "complete strategy" to deal with the eurozone crisis.

Formal focus

Image caption Protesters are already gearing up ahead of the Cannes G20 meeting in November

The troika of the EU, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB) has agreed to cut Greece some more slack and hand over the next instalment.

But the ignominious multibillion euro rescue of the French-Belgian bank Dexia has shown that this is not just about EU countries that cannot fund their liabilities.

It is about exactly which institutions are holding that debt and what happens to the whole financial system if there is a default on it.

There are more then whispers here that if events continue to unravel, France itself could yet see its own credit rating downgraded.

And with those bond vigilantes now circling Italy and Spain, the eurozone cannot afford not to get its ducks in a row by 23 October.

That is because the next full G20 heads of government summit in Cannes is held only a week or so later on 3 and 4 November.

The plan is to formally focus on the spiralling euro crisis.

Pardon the excruciating pun, but they really do have to stop kicking the can down the road by the time they get to Cannes.

Herding cats

The G20 is also feeling the weight of the world's expectations.

In Cannes, anything less than a collective global consensus along the lines of what emerged from former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's 2009 G20 gathering in London's Docklands will inevitably be labelled as a diplomatic failure for the 20, and for French President Nicolas Sarkozy in particular.

The trouble is that the G20 is juggling many running issues and pet initiatives.

Yet squabbling over Tobin taxes and taking complex steps to prevent the next crisis seem pointless when leaders are failing to tackle today's worsening credit crisis and imbalances.

Most recently, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso set out a kind of wish-list for the EU summit.

Once again, it seemed he was attempting to herd cats.

The 17 may agree with most of the principles he sets out so clearly. Yet still nobody seems ready to underwrite whole countries and banks that commercial lenders won't touch with a barge-pole.

No-one seems to be able to work out which will be the costliest: keeping banks and nations alive, or letting them fail and then having to pick up the pieces.

Once again, the European Commission appears to be trying to bounce the biggest bankrollers, Germany and France, into greater commitments.

Yet these two are keeping their powder dry, and we have yet to learn their intentions.

Costly project

Euro members resent being lectured by non-members, especially the UK.

However, British Chancellor George Osborne neatly spelt out in the House of Commons the essence of the job that needs to be done:

  • Ring-fence the weak Euro members by drastically increasing the size of the rescue funds
  • Recapitalise the banks - at least in line with stress tests that this time take account of sovereign exposure.
  • Resolve to help the troubled southern European states to find a new path to growth.

Compared with the black hole in Europe's sovereign accounts, even the enlarged EFSF fund that has taken months to vote through is, frankly, chicken feed.

Collectively, it will cost taxpayers trillions to refloat the sinking ship that is the single currency zone.

The only alternative forecast by many economists, even here where the European project had its birth, is the likely collapse of the euro and the makings of a deep global recession and credit crunch.

The countdown to Cannes has begun.